March 5, 1998 in Nation/World

Senate Passes National Dui Standard States Would Be Forced To Adopt .08 Percent Blood-Alcohol Limit Or Lose Federal Funding

Edwin Chen Los Angeles Times
 

The Senate voted Wednesday to set a tough national standard for determining when a driver is legally drunk and to withhold millions of dollars in federal highway funds from states that do not comply.

If the House goes along, the provision would create what amounts to one standard from coast to coast - an allowable blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent.

Fifteen states already enforce that standard. But 35 states use a more lenient .10 percent bloodalcohol content as the threshold for being legally drunk.

The proposal to set the tougher standard passed the Senate on a 62-32 vote, with the majority brushing aside those who argued that Washington once again was meddling in a matter better left to the states.

“This problem is much more than a state problem; it’s a national tragedy,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, co-sponsor of the measure.

“Happy hour for drunk drivers is over,” added Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the other co-sponsor.

The provision was approved as an amendment to the $173 billion six-year highway spending bill being considered by the Senate. Under the Lautenberg-DeWine amendment, states that choose not to accept the tougher standard would lose 5 percent of their federal highway money in fiscal 2002 and 10 percent thereafter.

Support for the new standard crossed party lines, with 26 Republicans joining 36 Democrats.

“It’s gratifying to know that this amendment, if enacted into law, will save 600 lives per year, sparing so many families the tragedy that comes from drunk driving,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

President Clinton, who appealed for the amendment’s adoption at an emotional White House ceremony on Tuesday that included relatives of people killed by drunken drivers, praised the Senate action. “It will save hundreds of lives each year,” he said.

According to anti-drunken driving groups, about 17,000 of the 40,000 highway deaths in 1996 resulted from alcohol-related accidents.

“The Senate has shown tremendous leadership by passing this life-saving amendment,” said Karolyn Nunnallee, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD.

Denouncing the toughened standard were officials of the alcohol and restaurant industries, who in lobbying against it argued it was too low.

“It’s just nauseating, to be honest with you,” said John C. Doyle of the American Beverage Institute, a trade association that represents about 5,000 restaurants. “We’ve reached a point in the crusade against social drinking … where restaurants are saying ‘enough!”’

Doyle said the real safety problems are caused by serious abusers of alcohol, not “social drinkers.” “The average blood-alcohol content level among fatally injured drinking drivers is 0.17 percent, or more than twice the proposed 0.08 percent arrest level,” he said.

A 1997 Department of Transportation study said the 0.08 level approximates the blood-alcohol content of a 170-pound man after four drinks within an hour, or a 137-pound woman after three drinks in the same time span.

Leading the Senate opposition to the measure was Sen. Don Nickles, D-Okla., who said states should have an unencumbered right to set their own standards.

“This is a heavy stick. This is a dagger that says you have to do it,” Nickles said. “We are trampling on states’ rights and encouraging this idea that if there is a problem, there’s a federal solution and we won’t give you your money back.”

But DeWine said it is senseless for a driver to be legally intoxicated in one state but not another.

The measure’s prospects in the House were uncertain as of Wednesday. But Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who plans to sponsor it in that chamber, predicted the strong Senate vote would provide “the momentum we will need to pass this measure.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

HOW THEY VOTED

Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Slade Gorton voted to approve a national standard for drunken-driving levels.

This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW THEY VOTED Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Slade Gorton voted to approve a national standard for drunken-driving levels.


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